The drive to improve ourselves is the human condition. From birth we have been judged, rated, and compared to others in school, social, professional, and familial relationships, so it is no wonder that we walk around feeling like impostors.
And if, as young children, we didn’t feel encouraged, accepted, and loved by our caregivers, we can grow up feeling unsure about ourselves, our place in the world, and especially uncertain about who we are separate from our families. These feelings can be exacerbated if, in our lives, we’ve also experienced neglect, abuse, marginalization, alienation, inequality, and other forms of prejudice and bias.
Disempowering and traumatic experiences shatter our self-esteem making us feel unlovable and unworthy, which makes it very difficult to accept ourselves.
So what is acceptance? Acceptance is recognizing our human limitations and failings. Acceptance isn’t condoning or excusing your wrongs and flaws, nor anyone else’s faults either.
Self-acceptance is about unconditionally welcoming and even loving ALL parts of ourselves. In fact, peace, success, and happiness arise from our ability to balance and support different aspects of our being because the focus shifts from judging and rating to allowing and embracing.
But this can be challenging, so we have to actually practice self-acceptance. It needs to become a habit that is consciously cultivated and developed over time with effort and determination.
Below are some practical steps on how to begin validating who we are – flaws and all.
Self-Compassion & Self-Forgiveness
When we struggle with self-acceptance, we are quick to compare ourselves to others, and may even apply value judgments like, "I’m terrible", or "I’m bad and useless" when we make mistakes. Insulting ourselves is unkind and an unnecessary waste of energy. A better use of energy would be to gently notice your reactions to the self-recriminations, and especially the feelings the recriminations awaken in you. Then with kindness and compassion, remind yourself that you are doing your best. A really helpful skill to develop is to learn to laugh at yourself and not take yourself so seriously. Also practice not being so sensitive, and quick to take offense or feel judged.
Self-acceptance is hard especially when we aren’t able to forgive ourselves or others. The best way to release the past if you’ve harmed someone, or behaved in an unethical or immoral way, is then to acknowledge it, take responsibility, regret it, make amends, and then very importantly, make a commitment not to repeat it. These powerfully cleansing steps will not only give you peace of mind, but also free you to start again.
To forgive someone who has harmed you doesn’t mean you are sanctioning their behavior, rather it is about releasing the past and what’s uncontrollable, and regaining control of your life and mind. Grow the understanding through reflection on your life experiences that uncontrollable situations in our lives arise from many contributing factors, which can cause us and others to act out habitual tendencies; this is an important contemplation. Doing this will help us be kinder towards ourselves and others. Recognize too that we have the choice not to repeat the things that are within our control.
Be Mindful of Negative Self-Talk
Many of life’s occurrences are beyond our control, which can be anxiety producing. The best way to keep anxiety at bay is to remain present and mindfully connected to your senses. For instance, notice the color of the wall, shape of a chair, texture of a vase, listen to the clock, a bee buzzing, or feel your scarf on your neck. This technique of separating from emotions will prevent you from identifying with unhelpful feelings and mindlessly acting and thinking in reactive ways, and it will also clear your mind.
Be on the alert for your inner critic’s negative remarks and thoughts. To challenge this negative voice, make a list of small or large things you do well. Keep this at hand to read aloud when you are feeling down about yourself. Low self-worth can cause us to overlook the things that come easily or are second nature. So keep an eye out for the skills you are dismissing, for e.g. notice the many requests for your cooking or baking, your gardening tips, the compliments on your keen eye for color and design, and so on. These gifts make us who we are.
Learn from Everything
Our tendency is to only accept ourselves when we are performing well or succeeding. Wisdom however, is training to learn from all our life experiences because they all have something to teach. Courageously think about the times you didn’t do as well, and reflect on how those experiences may have changed you for the better. Recognize how your abilities, resilience, and coping skills have been affected by them, and be grateful for the learning opportunity.
The ability to see or think of situations from many viewpoints is extremely empowering for accepting all parts of ourselves. Give yourself a few minutes to replay a situation you are fretting over. The point is to rerun the incident but from different perspectives. Try and put yourself in the other person’s shoes, and also find ways to think differently about your own growth areas. Rather than focusing on how you may have a bad habit like watching television, you can think of it as knowing how to relax, or talking a lot can be viewed as being friendly and sociable.
The simplest way to grow self-acceptance is to spend time in the company of people who are comfortable with themselves. Observe and emulate their way of being, speaking, and thinking especially about themselves, others, and their life circumstances.
Another method is to surround yourself with people who uplift, celebrate, and allow you to be yourself. Spending time with people in whose company you can comfortably share your feelings, worries, and greatest joys is a warm and enjoyable way to learn self-acceptance.
All practices require daily concerted effort. You will successfully attain self-acceptance if you chip away at it every day.
May you succeed in accepting and celebrating your diverse self.